Thursday, April 11, 2024

James--A Welcome Re-telling of an American Classic


When I was young, my grandmother read Tom Sawyer to me, both of us laughing aloud at Tom's antics. As I grew older, I reread it many times, delighting in the humor. Eventually I read Huck Finn and enjoyed it, though maybe not as much.

By the time I was in college, Huck Finn was touted as a classic of American Fiction, and I read it again, paying attention to the image of the river, the picaresque journey, the vignettes of Southern society, and Huck's redeeming change of heart when he decides he'll help Jim escape, at the risk of going to hell for stealing the Widder's property. Wow, I thought, how radical for the time and place.

Then I re-read Huck a few years ago. What leapt out at me this time was the portrayal of Jim as ignorant, superstitious, and, ultimately, an ill-used plaything for Tom Sawyer's fantasies. It was appalling.

Now, with Perceval Everett's magnificent re-imagining of the novel, Jim, now James, has a voice. And what a voice it is! It has taken away the unpleasant taste left by my last reading of Huck. I can't recommend this novel highly enough.

Let me direct you to the excellent review that hooked me HERE


Sandra Parshall said...

Sorry, but I have my doubts about anyone rewriting a classic just to suit modern tastes and viewpoints. Twain's book reflected the time it was set in. The characters belong to him. And nobody has to read it if they find it offensive.

JJM said...

The playing of roles is a prominent thread in Huckleberry Finn. Both Huck and Jim are playing the parts into which they were born and raised. Huck, a member of the "superior" white race, in time gains the insight that he is not superior at all, that Jim is indeed the more worthy of the two. Jim, however, unlike Stepin Fetchit or, to a lesser extent, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, can't just drop the role once he's offstage -- he's not an actor on a stage, the stage is the reality of his life. Hence the impression that he is and remains a buffoon. Mark Twain also belonged to his own time and place and thus possibly did not or could not see the role-playing for what it is -- in any case, he did not make this aspect of the character explicit.

A useful contract is provided by the Duke and the King, who are playing parts that are not theirs by birth and raising, i.e. that of members of royalty and the noble class. Their playing of those roles thus jarred with reality and is played to comic effect. The reader sees through the act immediately: those two are comically ignorant conmen.

Huck's and Jim's roles are far more subtle because they inescapably reflect their reality. The original readers, being of the largely same time and place as Huck & Jim, would be unlikely to see this; indeed, as I said, Twain himself might not have. But the role playing, the playing of parts, is definitely there -- and we, as readers from a far different time if not place, can see the roles for what they are, as well as the wrongness and tragedy inherent within. Of one thing we can be sure, though: Twain is not dissing Jim, and to him Jim is no buffoon.

(Forgive the clumsiness of the writing, please -- I've had a hard few days. But The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, for me, one of the two greatest American novels, the other being Moby-Dick, and I re-read these two books periodically, always finding in them something new that I hadn't noticed or grokked before. The role-playing aspect is an insight that suddenly popped up as I read your essay, Vicki; I'd need to re-read the book to support it in smooth and proper academic fashion.)

Vicki Lane said...

How well put, Mario. The role-playing is what is at the heart of JAMES. And I don't mean to imply that this novel replaces Huck Finn, which is a masterpiece. For me, however, JAMES opens up more possibilities. I'd love to see a similar treatment of GONE WITH THE WIND from Mammy's pov.

it's a bit like the alternative reality novels--in which the Nazis (or the British or the American Indians) won the war.

JJM said...

I assure you I did not think you were advocating replacing Huckleberry -- that goes without saying. Perish the thought! And a retelling of Gone with the Wind from Mammie's p.o.v. ... with a really good writer, that would be worth reading. I do find myself also wondering what might have happened to all these characters after book's end, although, in reality, I do not think a sequel is a good idea; the ending of the book works beautifully, and I wouldn't change it for anything, nor rob its power with a sequel. I shall, however, keep an eye out for a cop of James. Your recommendations have always been spot on.